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Elisavietta Ritchie

Elisavietta Ritchie’s Raking The Snow won the Washington Writers Publishing House 1981 poetry manuscript competition, and for the 1982 book editor Shirley Cochrane selected poems from what were several quasi-chapbooks in progress: “The Road to Sungai Karang,” poems of the Far East; “A Balkan October,” poems mainly of Yugoslavia and Bulgaria; poems of the Chesapeake and Patuxent tidewater area; and more bittersweet ones such as the now rather infamous “Elegy for The Other Woman—” which later became the title poem of a collection published by Signal Books.In Haste I Write You This Note: Stories & Half-Stories won the premiere Washington Writers’ Publishing House Fiction Competition for 2000. Of this variegated collection, Eleanor J. Bader, who reviewed it for Foreword, wrote:

“Ritchie’s resonant writing evokes humanity’s most endearing traits…Her work will remind readers of the many serendipitous connections and missed opportunities that continually swirl in the world around them…All are treated with freshness—an emotional clarity—that startles…It is riveting material. Ritchie writes with a poet’s finesse, a psychologist’s insight and a sage’s humanism. It is a brilliant mix, rare, heartfelt and wise.” [For full review, see http://www.elisaviettaandclyde.com/]

With publication of her books, Ritchie later served three years as president of Washington Writer’s Publishing House, helping other poets to publish and publicize their work; she is currently co-president for the new fiction division. She also founded the tiny Wineberry Press to publish a handful of chapbooks by other Washington-area writers, collections too small to warrant attention from bigger houses.

Awaiting Permission to Land, which won the 2001 Anamnesis Poetry Manuscript Award, will be published by WordTech Communications’ Cherry Grove Collections in January 2006. The Spirit of the Walrus (2005) won a Bright Hill Press contest.

Signal Books of Chapel Hill meanwhile published Flying Time: Stories and Half-Stories, with four PEN Syndicated Fiction winners, The Arc of the Storm (1998); and Elegy for the Other Woman: New & Selected Terribly Female Poems (1996). Tightening The Circle Over Eel Country (Acropolis Books 1974) won Great Lakes Colleges Association’s 1975-76 “New Writer’s Award”. Chapbooks include: Wild Garlic: The Journal of Maria X.; A Wound-Up Cat & Other Bedtime Stories; Moving To Larger Quarters, A Sheath if Dreams and Other Games, and Timbot, a novella-in-verse about a Circassian defector fled from a Soviet gulag.

Individual publications include Poetry, American Scholar, JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, Nimrod, New York Times, New Republic, Press, Canadian Woman Studies, Confrontation, Southern Poetry Review, Kalliope, Earth’s Daughters, Ascent, Negative Capability, New York Quarterly, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post; and many literary publications. Her work is widely anthologized, including inSound and Sense, The 90th Anniversary Poetry Anthology, Life On The Line, When I’m An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple, and other Papier Mache anthologies; Beyond Lament; Only The Sea Keeps: Poetry of the Tsunami; and numerous other publications in the US and abroad.

As well as constantly writing, with three or four new collections of prose and of poetry in progress, professionally Ritchie edits, translates Russian and French, serves as poet-in-the-schools, leads creative writing workshops for adults in universities, libraries and senior centers, and hosts several peer-group workshops. She was a recent nominee for poet laureate of Maryland.

She edited The Dolphin’s Arc: Endangered Creatures of the Sea, Finding The Name, was recently a line editor for a book on post-disaster post-traumatic stress disorders, another on post-tsunami relief efforts, and other books.

Ritchie has read at Library of Congress, Harbourfront, Folger Library, Writer’s Center and many other universities, libraries and other venues in the US, Canada, Australia, Russia, and under the auspices of the United States Information Agency, throughout the Far East, Brazil, Russia, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.

Published throughout the United States as well as abroad, Elisavietta Ritchie has read at the Library of Congress, Folger Library, Harbourfront, and many other venues here and overseas. Four stories in her earlier collection, Flying Time, were PEN Syndicated Fiction Project winners.Tightening The Circle Over Eel Country won the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s “New Writer’s Award for Best First Book of Poetry 1975-76,” and Raking The Snow was a 1982 WWPH winner. Recently returned from seven years in Canada and Australia, which her husband was covering for the New York Times, she has resettled in Washington DC and on the Patuxent River.

Flying Time: Stories & Half-Stories includes four PEN Syndicated Fiction winners. Re-Inventing The Archives won the Washington Writer’s Publishing House 1999 competition and was published in 2000.Tightening The Circle Over Eel Country won the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s “New Writer’s Prize for Best First Book of Poetry 1975-76.”Raking The Snow won the Washington Writer’s Publishing House 1981-82 competition.

Her other books of poetry are The Arc of the Storm; Elegy For The Other Woman; the chapbooks A Wound-Up Cat and Other Bedtime Stories; A Sheaf of Dreams And Other GamesMoving To Larger QuartersThe Problem With Eden, and two novellas in verse, Timbot and Wild Garlic: The Journal of Maria X. She is completing a novel, and new poetry and fiction collections.

Individual poems, stories and collections have been winners or finalists in many competitions, and she has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. Her fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, photographs, and translations from Russian and French have appeared in numerous publications including Poetry, The American Scholar, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, National Geographic, New York Quarterly, Confrontation, Press, New Letters, Kalliope, Nimrod, Canadian Women’s Studies, Calyx, Maryland Poetry Review, Iris; anthologies including When I’m An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple; If I Had My Life To Live Over I Would Pick More Daisies; The Tie That Binds; If I Had A Hammer, Grow Old Along With Me / The Best Is Yet To Be; Generation To Generation; Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend; and many others. Her work has been translated into a dozen languages.

She founded The Wineberry Press, and for three years was president of Washington Writer’s Publishing House. Books edited include The Dolphin’s Arc: Poems on Endangered Creatures of the Sea. Her photographs have appeared in The New York Times etc.

Education includes: The Sorbonne, University of Paris, where she received a diploma with “Mention Tres Bien” (equivalent to magna cum laude) from the Cours de Civilisation Francaise; Cornell University; University of California at Berkeley (combined BA in French, Russian and English); Georgetown University (Russian courses); American University (MA in French literature, minor in Russian studies); The Writer’s Center; and the Toronto Martial Arts Commission.

Review of In Haste I Write You This Note

Ritchie’s resonant writing evokes humanity’s most endearing traits. Whether showcasing American diplomats, struggling fishermen or worried parents, her work will remind readers of the many serendipitous connections and missed opportunities that continually swirl in the world around them. Three of the four sections in this twenty-one story collection are composed of interwoven tales, each of which can stand alone. In Haste is Ritchie’s twelfth book.

The first section, “The Lady in Eight,” is a four-part narrative about romantic encounters. Its opening piece, “In Haste I Write You This Note,” presents a woman’s internal rumblings as she weighs the pros and cons of inviting a neighbor to her home. Her obsessive search for the right words–how does one invite a male acquaintance to one’s apartment?–is poignant, wrenching. Three other vignettes round out this section. The man’s perspective and observations about the meeting and ensuing flirtation are offered; likewise, readers will feel desires both painful and primal as they grapple with the longing the female presents.

The second series of stories, “Communications from Paradise,” assess the ways individuals utilize psychological denial. Some literally deny all unpleasantness, whether a poisonous snake or an unfaithful mate. Others, like the protagonist in “The Big Sixtieth,” confront misery head-on, bravely struggling to make sense of a best friend’s unexpected death.

Section Three, “Marching On,” addresses relationships and the ties that both bind and strangle. “Marching to War,” one of the most moving stories in the anthology, is written in the voice of a woman whose only daughter has enlisted in the military. The mother, a single-parent, has been too busy raising her brood and working to actively protest violence. Now, she worries that her lack of political engagement has unwittingly caused her child to accept armed conflict as inevitable, The ten other pieces in this section are equally compelling. Domestic violence, human/animal communications, poverty and divorce, all are treated with freshness–an emotional clarity–that startles.

Similarly, “Re-Inventing the Archives,” exudes honesty and integrity. In this tale, an adult daughter attempts to decipher which family legacies to keep and which to discard. It is riveting material.

Ritchie writes with a poet’s finesse, a psychologist’s insight and a sage’s humanism. It is a brilliant mix, rare, heartfelt and wise.
—Eleanor J. Bader

Poem from Raking the Snow

1. June 1914

The Archduke is being driven
from manoeuvres
to the gala lunch.

The shuttle shoots
to the selvage
on hundreds of looms.

A watchman dreams of figs.

The plausible trajectory
has not yet met its mark.

Skinny ghosts spin
from the strings
of the village fiddler.

A cadet at attention too long
sways in the sun.
A shopkeeper counts
his coffee beans.
Flies land in bowls
of honeyed milk.

Heat and dust and blood
rise from the quays
in a furl of mosquitoes.

2. October 1979

Rain slides down
entire horizons
of onion domes,
washes spires
in darkening tears.

Cold slips inside
thin coats,
soaked shoes.

Unquiet mud oozes
over bald cobblestones,
hides shadows
of old footprints.

In the riverbank park
snowberries glow
death white.

Parapets are decked
with maroon petunias,
velvety but

the bridge is too
narrow to bear
all that history.

Magpies stalk
the wasted river
for minnows, flies,
and their own
warped reflections.

Downriver the waters
run red: perhaps effluent
from a textile mill.

Prayer unwinds from a minaret.
Tombstones crowd
within cracked walls
and rusted grilles.

In a shuttered apartment
a battered trumpet
and accordion
attempt a minuet.

On these windy quays
I also wait
at a crossroad.

Had Gavrilo Princep arrived
in this colder season
his fingers might
have shivered too much
on the trigger.

But there are always
other assassins…

Interview with Elisavietta Ritchie

Some of these answers are quick and easy, others take much cogitation, and also concern one might seem too self-centered, too self-dramatizing, pompous, and sometimes wrong in the facts. With luck someone will be able to correct any errors.

The word in Malay/Indonesian is the same for Poet and for Seer/Prophet:

Penyair. It is also the word for Court Jester or Fool. Some of my answers may seem foolish, self-serving, or at least long-winded. But when it comes to certain eras, I realize my memory bank does hold some of the literary history of Washington and of Washington Writers’ Publishing House, since I was president (because no one else was available when there was a sudden void) 1983-1986, and after a period out of the loop and out of the country, again for some of the same reasons after it created a fiction division in 1999, president for fiction, though much of the time blessedly it has been as co-president with Laura Brylawski-Miller.

Q: How and when did you find out that your book was being published?

My first poetry mss with WWPH, in 1980, only came close: not enough poems and as for the section of translations there, these was not what WWPH published. But Grace Cavalieri, Shirley Cochrane, Bob Sargent, who I believe made up the mss-reading team that year, urged me to try again—and in 1981 Raking the Snow, the mss now buttressed with its tripartite sections on the Balkans, the Far East, and down the Patuxent, won along with Mary Ann Larkin and Hastings Wyman.

Shirley became my editor, an immense help, and a real friend, as did the others in the Press—a joy to find soul mates in what, except for a handful of (incidentally male) friends with whom I usually clandestinely shared some early poems/stories, had been somewhat of a writer’s desert. I learned the importance of a caring editor who can catch things the writer cannot and most of all, see the whole, and see it through. Although since then I’ve changed every poem in the book, at the moment of publication it seemed perfect.

Q: What was it like seeing your book in print for the first time?

Great—because I was thrilled with the cover. In previous years, WWPH covers had been limited to plain one-color backgrounds plus the essential title, author’s name, and WWPH. The Press could not afford fancier ones. However, when on the floor of the old Writer’s Center at Glen Echo I spotted a large rectangle of kindergarten drawing paper on which an anonymous silk screener had just cleaned his rollers into an irregular grid, obviously it was right for Raking the Snow. Furthermore, since it was all be black and white, there would be no additional cost. So, thanks to some artist’s trash, I designed my own cover. This convinced me that future authors should have authority to create their own covers. This is not true for many of the big presses, and indeed, most of my own earlier and few of the later mid-sized publishers had their own art departments so my final covers were surprises. Thus when I became WWPH president, among the early manuscripts then chosen, Jean Nordhaus and Myra Sklarew, who craved special stock and covers for their forthcoming books of poetry, had full encouragement. This tradition has continued with some super covers generated by the authors themselves.

When the Fiction Competition came onto the scene in 1999, my fellow winner Laura Brylawski-Miller suggested a solid-color frame around a variable central illustration to convey a certain unity to the whole series. When after much hard work rewriting and editing In Haste I Write You This Note—: Stories & Half-Stories and The Square at Vigevano came out together with matching forest green frames, I was delighted. This has seemed perfect in perpetuity. Subsequent fiction authors have chosen their own illustrations (sometimes a painting of Laura’s, sometimes one by one of their own friends), and the colors of frame to pick up the right color of the illustration, but connectivity persists.

Q: What kind of poet/ fiction writer do you see yourself as? Kind? Species or genus?

I suppose: serious. Even when ironic at times. A fulltime poet/writer even when not actually at the desk.

An unfocussed writer in the sense that despite certain concentrated months working on novels, including a novel-in-verse still in a trunk, I have not stuck with one form for long. Rhymed, unrhymed, formal or all over the place, emerging all of a piece in a two minutes or over years of picking away, the form may change without notice.

A haiku can grow into an epic poem; a little poem can grow into a story stories interlinked or not can become a collection. Letters to certain close individuals sometimes serve as journals, or gymnasiums, in which to work out ideas that eventually emerge as poems or stories or admitted memoirs. A poem can mutate into a prose-poem into a creative-non-fiction piece for a newspaper—which means larger circulation but more strictures on word-count and subject matter. Several stories have grown into novels, none of which has been polished enough to offer a publisher or even to show a friend. Someday if I get them into shape—

Not a particularly academic writer, despite an MA (in French and Russian literatures and I admit those influences persist). I’m inspired by, but never try to imitate or to write poems to, other writers (except a couple of parodies).

International often in subject, and to some rare extent in audience.

“Concerned” poetry, yes, but I hope subtly so. Not a particularly political writer. Someone said (I doubt it was I)—political poetry tends to be more polemic than poetic. I did protest in front of the White House against invading Iraq, though able to foresee poets and poetry would not stop any war. The best we can do is to write about the realities of wars and their aftermaths.

A “crusading” poet/writer in a quiet (usually) way for writers/poets in prison and the dissidents wherever, for as Albert Camus said, “The role of the writer is to speak for the unknown prisoner who has no voice.” Hence a story like “Wild Garlic: The Journal of Maria X.,” which first began and was published as a series of interlinked poems before it emerged in a pseudo-journal form in In Haste I Write You This Note: Stories and Half Stories. Ditto in my workshop-teaching role, trying to help the writer/poet who is locked up in himself/herself, especially the “troubled soul.” Am on the periphery of The National Association of Poetry Therapy, though I am not a licensed therapist. But this is one area where I believe poetry can be effective.

Otherwise, in real life, ineffective.

Q: Is there a particular genre or subject matter you find yourself revisiting often?

Love poems, of course, though as the lovers and mostly-would-be lovers aged, they became Old Lovers. Oldies but still Goodies.

Multiple genres and subjects…Poet Roger Hecht (Anthony’s epileptic kid brother who became a friend) told me early, “Your poems are all over the place! Find your own voice and stick to it!” I did not, and when Tightening The Circle Over Eel Country won the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s “New Writer’s Prize for First Book,” the judges praised it as “not a one-note book.”

More fundamentally: Denise Levertov wrote in a poem about how often she found herself drawn back into writing about her parents, and that there is nothing wrong with this. Although I worry that I have milked them too much, my parents, grandparents, a third cousin with whom for decades I’ve been mildly in love (spiritually, puritanically, continents apart), and our mutual ancestors, they all pull me back into the poems, stories, correspondence and memoirs they engender.

Inheriting various bloods and histories, and living, studying and traveling abroad, of course there are “foreign” influences and climes and concerns. The Slavic world, the Far and Middle East, Europe, the Tropics, Australia, as well as North America.

Tides always pull me back to the sea, the critters always pull me into the land. In recent years, the setting is the Chesapeake Bay estuary, and the oceans beyond.

Q: When did you first realize that you were a writer? Can you pinpoint a specific time in your life, or did you always know that you wanted to write?

In our attic I found, in a box of my Russian grandmother’s memoirs and memorabilia, poems I had spoken at age three and she had copied. Some were in English, some in Russian, all in her strong Old World handwriting, with bylines. My mother saved a “book” I wrote at four, all backwards: mirror-writing she had to hold to a looking glass to read. I might have been dyslexic but they didn’t use that word then. I’ve not tried to re read any of these early things, but my first poem I remember writing down, from age 6 on the Woods Hole to Nantucket Island ferry:

Seagull, seagull, two by four, Eating garbage off the floor.

I fear this theme reappears in my work: the juxtaposition/coexistence of the spiritual/artistic/transcendental and the earthy/prosaic/quotidian. I just realized the coincidence that my new poetry manuscript-in-progress is currently entitled CORMORANT BEYOND THE COMPOST [BIN?]. So the birds are still up there, the garbage continues to overflow, themes repeat and interlace, as happened with Bach, Verdi, Mozart, Vivaldi…

Despite distractions, challenges, disdain and rejection, I’ve always written. Fortunately some work has been published, some still gets accepted, usually in obscure places though a few big-time publications. However, I realized years ago I’d never amass either fame or fortune, but doggedly keep writing, and remain involved with books, writes/poets, their wisdom, a bit of encouragement, and the turnaround to try to help other writers/poets.

I would have been a marine biologist, or a doctor, but, numerically-challenged, (or else because I was always reading instead of finishing my arithmetic, could not do the necessary math to tackle the pre-med requirements. I sublimate by reading the New York Times Science section Tuesdays. In 1977, finding myself on my own again, I passed the Foreign Service exam but realized:

  1. foreign service is life-in-a-fish-bowl for a woman, especially on her own,
  2. I’d never have time to write, (though Lawrence Durrell and Lamartine set the standard for diplomat-writers), and
  3. I could not consistently support the policies of my government.

Unforeseen family needs intervened, my life interesting enough already, and to a small extent certain aspects thereof even “socially useful.” And I’d met Clyde Farnsworth, so life became more intriguing than ever.

Q: Can you discuss your writing practice? Are there particular places or times of day that you find most conducive to writing?

I seize whatever tatters of time and place, be they “traditional” sitting at a desk 9-12 am, or scribbling 9-12 pm stranded in a foreign airport, or the three-minute gift of a stoplight at which to scribble the first lines against the dashboard, or the moment listening to a lecture that I find myself inspired. I taught French at American University (while getting an MA in French and Russian) but when during my fifth year of teaching found my mind writing in while I was supposedly imparting some essential and supposedly correct bit of information, I knew it was time to stop teaching and return to writing as full-time as possible and in whatever way fat led me. (And fate was continuing to lead me into a variety of directions.) The editing and re-re-writing takes more focused time at a typewriter/computer.

I should say, “the writing life,” since translating, editing, some mostly-soft journalism, photography, or publicity for someone else, all constituted daily writing, it hardly mattered what, it all fed into the whole. I only feel guilty if a day passes and I’m not at it. As Czech writer Arnost Lustig, “If two or three days go by and I have not written anything, I fell unwell.”

Q: What is it about your writing style that makes you unique?

You will have to ask someone else or better, judge for yourself. I seldom know what or how I’ve written until someone else point it out. Some reviewers and readers have said reassuring things. My peer-group writers quickly bring me down to earth and back to the drawing board for the next twenty drafts or the wastebasket.

Q: What do you think the WWPH has done for the Washington literary scene?

One could almost say that, at least as far as the poetry scene of the 1960′s is concerned, WWPH was the literary scene. An exaggeration, of course, yet from its modest beginnings WWPH’s influences permeated into/infected the whole community, especially as literary circles widened with the infusion of newcomers to the Washington area and discovery of long-time residents who happened to be poets/writers.

Poetry Consultants (later Poetry Laureates) at the Library of Congress came and went. Several became part of the local scene, especially Reed Whittemore, Josephine Jacobsen, Stanley Kunitz, William Stafford, Gwendolyn Brooks, were generous big-time poets who joined the local poets without exhibiting any condescendence. Some particularly encouraged WWPH writers. Some in the decades before and since, but the afore-mentioned became my particular friends and mentors, and remained so for years.

In the 1960′s, however, there seemed to be only a dozen or so local poets. We found each other, critiqued and supported each other—and although each was then engaged in other day jobs, each has gone on to see books published and to become a leader in some literary institution/situation or endeavor. Several of this original nucleus became part of the Washington Writers’ Publishing House, others at least helped to encourage individuals and the nascent institution.

Other presses began to play similar roles in the literary life of the city, and we encouraged rather than competed. Some Of Us Press, SOUP, with Terrence Winch; Stacy Tuthill’s SCOP Press; and Karren Alenier and Jacklyn Potter with their highly successful The Word Works and Miller Cabin Readings. Certain poets such as Robert Sargent and Hilary Tham have been part of the other presses and WWPH.

WWPH poets Grace Cavalieri went on to WPFW-FM, The Poet and the Poem, Montserrat Review and her work with the Library of Congress, Ethelburt Miller created his reading series, and Kim Roberts her projects with Beltway website and Northern Virginia’s Ellipse. May Miller, Ann Darr, Myra Sklarew, Ann Knox and I were among the first poets-in-the-schools before the term was invented. All are examples of how far-reaching yet interrelated and downright incestuous we are.

As individuals and as an institution, we have participated in the Writer’s Center from its beginnings at the old amusement park at Glen Echo, through its moves to the grand new building on Walsh St, Bethesda. The Writer’s Center hosts the first launch for the new WWPH books. They must have sold our books and exhibited them all at every book fair from the first year they sponsored one.

From its inception WWPH embraced diversity, the only standard for an anonymously submitted manuscript winning being excellence. Such innovative reading series as the one Betty Parry organized at the Textile Museum, Nancy Gailbraith’s usually behind-the-scenes activities as assistant to the Poetry Consultant, and Ethelburt Miller’s series including both African-American and so-called Third World poets, as well as the now burgeoning poetry-in-the-schools activities, helped to bring together the larger communities. Thus poets/writers in and around WWPH played a role in integrating the intellectual life what still was a Southern City, and may be to this day.

This local-but-not-parochial literary scene has been enriched by those from abroad who moved here either for a few years with their embassies or universities, or permanently, including some as dissidents/exiles from their home countries. John Pauker, whose day job was with USIA, helped more poets around the world than anyone else at that time. He was instrumental in Washington too, and on some occasions passed the torch to me. And most WWPH members have lived, traveled, or even been born abroad, and individually come from a variety of cultures and backgrounds, so in its intellectual breadth, WWPH is not a provincial organization. Hilary Tham and Piotr Gwiazda might be considered prime examples.

Thus as individuals and as a Press, we have all spread our tentacles and usually friendly ones…When William Packard (late editor of New York Quarterly and a key figure in the Manhattan-area literary scene) visited me in maybe the early 1970′s, I took him to a reading (by a WWPH winner?) at George Washington University. Bill looked around at the packed room with swirling conversations and affections, and marveled: “M’God, all these poets here love each other! In New York they would be stabbing each other in the back!”

Q: How involved are you in the DC literary scene now?

I’m still much involved in the Greater Washington literary scene as WWPH President for Fiction, as author of my own books, as an occasional mentor, and as part of the growing audience for poets/writers at the Library of Congress and other venues which have sprung up around the area.

However, I am equally involved with trying to spreading that scene especially in (still moderately rural) Southern Maryland, thorough various outreach programs such as poetry-in-the-schools and nursing homes, poetry and memoir workshops for adults, poetry series, bringing in WWPH writers, mentoring high-school students, and less formal workshops and activities, for a while in Toronto in the 1990′s, minimally during one peripatetic year in Australia, and now back in Maryland as well as Washington. Southern Maryland is suddenly popping poets and writers.

Q: What people have most inspired your work? Why?

My Babushka and my parents to begin and end with, as they read extensively, to themselves and to me, had an ever-increasing library, and discussed endlessly not only their reading but world affairs, the natural world, and other people, and in three or more languages depending upon who was at the dinner table (from which I was not excluded). Their curiosity was encyclopedic.

My science teacher at Francis Parker School, Chicago, which I attended grades k-3, because he urged exploration, experimentation, and implementation.

Other teachers obviously, and professors, strangers met on trains, and friends, and my parents’ friends, my schoolmates, several grand loves realized or not, those afore-mentioned Laureates, and of course books and books, and their authors.

Everything and anything may inspire, from a cockroach to a violin.

Q: What is your favorite book? Why? Who are your favorite authors and why?

What year? What hour of what day? As Keats said, “Poets are magpie.” From Ferdinand the Bull and Hilaire Belloc, I progressed to Pushkin and Lermontov, John Masefield and Robert W. Service, H. Rider Haggard, Sherlock Holmes and John Buchan, John Keats and the whole galaxy (mostly of English poets as they were what were mostly taught.) While working for my MA mainly in French but with a minor in Russian it was Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Nabokov, St. Exupery and Albert Camus. Last month it was Barbara Kingsolver, the one before Isabel Allende. This last hour it has been The New York Times science writers.

My inconstant heart is still discovering favorites. That old song, “When I’m not near the girl I love / I love the girl I’m near.”

Q: What is the best writing advice you ever received and from whom?

A professor of Journalism 101 my senior year at University of California, Berkeley, by the name of Tomlinson, more benevolent than other newspaper editors would have been, taught me the primacy of essentials. I stopped writing morasses of facts and ideas (as I am doing in this current document) and began with the Who? Where? When? How? Why? (Of course this formula no longer hold true for the Washington Post where you may not find out the facts till the end, but back then, thanks to Tomlinson, A’s decorated my other term papers and exams.

This striving for succinctness was further encouraged in Poetry with Josephine Miles, taken simultaneously with Tomlinson in Journalism. The same week he had us writing headlines, she introduced us to haiku. In other words, cut the bullshitting and get to the point.

More recently, Writer Center’s founder and continuing instructor, Al Lefkowitz gave workshops focusing just on plot or just on dialogue, and his advice continues highly valuable.

And strangely enough, Stephen King—an unlikely suggestion, unless you read (or better yet, listen to his own audio recording of) On Writing.

And there are dozens of others who provide advice, many of whom I quote in the monthly spurs-to-inspiration the Library emails to my regular and irregular memoir-workshop participants as well as, now, a handful of writers beyond. (These may go onto the Library website or even a blogsite they tricked me into signing on to, though I have yet to learn or want to post anything but may soon post those.)

Q: What is the strangest job you ever had?

A number were strange to me, distinct challenges to the intellect and physique, but I’ll have to think about the strangest. Or at least invent the memory thereof. Maybe—and this is real—collecting and counting red starfish and green crabs on the rocks off Tasmania for a marine biologist documenting imported pests, and drinking the bouillabaisse afterwards.

Q: If you could travel anywhere in the world to write, where would you go? Why?

Anywhere by a warm sea surrounded by birds and flowers and loves. The Why is obvious. I could probably write in the gulag, given a down jacket, paper and pencil—not furnished the many Russian and other dissident writers/ poets/ artists/ composers.

Q: What is your favorite DC: restaurant, coffee shop, bookstore?

Restaurant? Anything Far Eastern: Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Japanese, Mongolian.

Coffee shop? Surely a long-vanished one where I used to meet a certain love, also long-vanished. More likely the Ukrainian Bakery in Toronto, staffed by recent arrivals. Here on a snowy day, my Karate buddies and I would eat marinated mushrooms and poppyseed cakes (which they say are hallucinogenic). The shop became a highschoolers hangout, the music changed from gypsy, and it may no longer exist.

Bookstore? The Writer’s Center, of course.

Review of In Haste I Write You This Note

“This set of stories is about regular people who are anything but average. They yearn and strive to be better people, exploring the depths of life and existence, in both their successes and failures. A number of the stories are woven together like a beautiful tapestry of human experience, showing how lives intersect, how profoundly we influence each other, how dependent upon one another we really are.”
—Kevin West, teacher, writer, editor, and presiding manuscript judge

Reviews of Raking the Snow

Elisavietta Ritchie’s work is original, varied and exciting, and has been steadily growing in scope and control. The core of her poems is vitality. Grim, joyous, exuberant or erotic, they have a strong and vivid life.
—Josephine Jacobsen

Elisavietta Ritchie writes a deceptively surprising poetry-casually conversational, brilliant with imagery, resplendent with sound. elegant in ideas. Yet beneath the very simplest lines there is an easy surrealism that opens each poem out onto another universe of ominous meaning and oblique possibilities.

As in these lines:

We shuttle centuries and shuffle names.
I sing old songs, and try’ to make him taste
the fake grape jello. bouillon, and white bread.

And in these lines also:

You stop there. Are you scared? I spoon the soup till it ebbs
and sop the last drops with hot bread

Who would imagine there is more to these lines than meets the eye’? Yet they work on us in unaccustomed ways. And taken together. the entire collection of poems in Raking the Snow presents us with an extraordinary sensibility-simultaneously immediate and abstract, sensual and curiously’ distant. (Needless to say. this kind of simultaneity’ can only happen when a poet has supreme mastery of her craft, as Emily Dickinson had supreme mastery of her craft.)

These poems speak for us in ways we did not imagine possible.
—William Packard

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